“A man can do all things if he will.”
-Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72)—the first Renaissance man

by Heather Atkinson

First Impressions

I first meet 15-year-old Patrick Caron on an April afternoon at the modest bungalow he shares with his dad Jimmy. I have driven past dun-coloured fields and bush to get here and arrive while a storm turns the sky dark.

Patrick’s immediate neighbours are few. He and his dad live next to a former dairy, now an elegant red-brick home on land bordered by hardwood bush; Patrick tells me later he considers its owners, Bruce and Karen, his second parents.

The young man in a plaid workshirt who shakes my hand is handsome and engaging. He has a bright smile and a gentle laugh, which I’ll hear often over our hour together.

I notice his bright brown eyes, their faint tilt—a hint of his First Nations ancestry. There is a slight syncopation in his speech I recognize from growing up in Ottawa East. I ask him if French is his mother tongue. He smiles and nods, yes.

Patrick suggests we talk in the kitchen so I follow him into a house that is spotless except for the dirty work boots on a mat at the front door. A red coin machine dominates one corner of the living room; I see no video games or a computer; I don’t notice the television at first because it is switched off. The house is quiet.

I wanted to interview Patrick after overhearing members of my choir discussing a “unique and inspiring” teen with “an amazing work ethic” who produces his own maple syrup from scratch. This wunderkind, I heard, does so with only a little help from his adult neighbours and his dad.

An image sprang to mind of a sleepy teenager collecting sap and then playing video games while the adults did the rest. That was before I met Patrick.

[Interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.]

Q & A

Patrick, what got you making maple syrup?

My neighbour Bonnie owns some bush, and last year I knew she was trying to make a little syrup for herself.

I stopped by one day to see how she was doing, and she seemed pretty discouraged. She’d just burnt a whole load of syrup. She told me she was ready to give up but I told her I’d help her and that way I could learn how to do it myself. I like being outside and working with my hands.

Bonnie said, sure. She needed help washing the sap pans and buckets and was going to ask some other kids in the area to help her but I said, no, I’d do it for her. I knew the others wouldn’t do it properly. I helped her tap a lot more trees and hang the buckets. We tapped about 85 trees.

You don’t seem to mind hard work.

No. I wanted to do it. I like hands-on stuff. And I wanted to do the whole thing from start to finish, even building the shack and the stove. For the 2017 season, I built a boiler from an old wood burning stove, which was too small to be efficient on its own, and an old oil tank.

I cut the oil tank in two and welded one half into the boiler. I saw that Bonnie’s front finishing pan was too big so I cut the pan down to fit.

You mentioned building the sugar shack. You must have had help with that.

I’m in shop at school so building the shack was something I knew I could do. But, yeah, Bruce and my dad helped me a lot the first year. They and Bonnie helped me put in the taps. We worked together. I couldn’t have done it without them.

When I was done with Bonnie’s trees after I ran out of wood, Karen and Bruce asked if I could help them continue their season using Bonnie’s trees because theirs weren’t producing well. So I did. The timing was right. Everyone, especially Bruce, has helped but next year I want to do it myself. Just to prove to myself I can.

Did you make a profit?

I don’t know. I think I made about 50 litres and charged $15 per liter. I’m not in it for the money.

You don’t care about money? That’s unusual in this day and age.

I don’t care about money to buy a lot of useless stuff. I like to earn it, and I like to save it. I like to watch my investments grow and I get frustrated if they’re not.

What do you do with your money? What are you saving for? A car?

Nah. I’m not one of those kids who’s saving for a car. I’ve had a lot of cars already. I buy them on Kijji. I bought a Honda Civic, I really liked that one, and fixed up and then a Volkswagen Jetta. I like to figure out what’s wrong, troubleshooting stuff interests me. My dad is always there to help if I need it. Then I sell the cars.

Your mom, Lizanne, lives in town. How does that work for you?

It can make things complicated. Trying to arrange the things I want to do. I don’t see my mom too much. There’s no problem it’s just that there’s not too much for someone like me to do in town. I tried living in town but it didn’t work. There’s a lot more to do here.

I like to be outside, keeping busy. I got my hunting licence because I wanted to learn how to hunt properly. I can’t race a dirt bike or make maple syrup or go hunting in town. I can’t help my dad fix stuff. I’ve got it pretty good out here. I have a lot going on. I don’t see myself ever living in town.

Your work ethic is remarkable. Where does that come from?

My dad gets up at three every morning to go to work. He works really hard all day and then he comes home and has to do stuff around here. I have to get up at six to make the bus to school [Centre professionnel et technique (CPT) Minto] in the east end of Ottawa. I have no choice. If I miss the bus, I miss school. So that’s why Karen or another neighbour will sometimes call to make sure I’m up. They don’t really have to but they do just in case I sleep in.

The bus comes at 6:15, and school starts at 8:30. If the traffic is good, the trip takes about an hour and a half. In the winter, it can take two and half hours to get there. The bus leaves school at 2:43 and drops me off at 4:10. I sleep on the bus; sometimes I read.

There’s a penalty if you miss a day, usually three one-hour detentions after school. Since I live so far away, I’d get nine 15-minute detentions during school hours. But since my mom calls the school if I miss the bus I don’t usually have a detention. Because she’s showing she’s motivated to keep me in school by calling.

Why did you choose a school so far away?

I went to École Catholique J.L. Couroux in Carleton Place until grade 8. A small school, only 138 students, and no drugs, at least that I knew about. I made three or four good friends. I liked it. After that, I didn’t want to go to a regular high school with lots of kids and courses I don’t really care about. I will never work in an office. I like hands-on practical stuff, troubleshooting problems that are in the real world.

So I chose to go to CPT. I knew as soon as I saw how the school was set up, how well equipped it was, I knew I had to go. Only 60 students in the school, and six students per class.

The teachers are strict; we’re not allowed to wrestle, no physical contact at all. CPT has a reputation as a school for drop-outs, kids who can’t make it anywhere else. We’re all trying to change that image. We want parents to send their kids there because it’s a good and safe school. It really is.

You are very self-disciplined, very determined. That’s somewhat unusual for someone your age.

I’ve seen how bad it can be when you drop out of school. Or get into trouble with drugs. My dad dropped out and left home at 16; my sister, Chantal, dropped out and left home when she was 16. It was hard for them. But Chantal is very determined too! She worked two jobs, went back to school and is graduating from grade 12 next month. I guess it’s in our genes.

I’m going to finish school. It never occurs to me to skip school. I only miss school if I accidentally sleep in. I want my diploma. I want the skills, and I find working interesting; I like experimenting. I want to work so I don’t have to depend on anyone. I like to do things myself.

Speaking of jobs, have you ever had one?

Yeah. I started pretty young cutting grass for Bruce, then a neighbour with a horse farm hired me one summer to throw hay, and then I piled firewood. When I was 13, I was supposed to be digging a trench for my dad’s buddy but instead he taught me how to drill holes and string electrical wire. I helped wire his garage.

I started working at M&P Farm Equipment Ltd. during the summer when I was 14. Karen thought it would be a good fit for my personality and skills. I started off keeping the yard clean, fixing their equipment, including lawn tractors; and then they let me try fixing customer equipment like manure spreaders and hay balers. The spreaders are not fun to work on when they’re not cleaned first!

You were only 14. How did you get to work? It’s a fair distance.

Bicycle. Same way I got to CP [Carleton Place] to visit my mom.

That’s a very long bike ride.

Not with a gas powered bike! I got an adaptor kit online and rigged it up. I took the back roads. I got stopped once but the officer just told me to keep to the side and stay safe. I was never late for work.

There are a lot of stories in the news about the Fentanyl crisis among youth. Any comments?

What’s Fentanyl?

It’s a highly addictive drug that a lot of kids your age are getting into trouble with.

Some of the kids at school are into drugs. I don’t really know what kind because I’m not interested. I usually get asked if I want to “hang out” away from the school. I figure that means doing drugs so I say no thanks. I have enough going on in my life. I’ve seen what drugs can do. But if others want to do them then that’s okay with me as long as they don’t bother me. Live and let live.

Who are your role models? Who do you look up to or call on when you need a hand?

My dad. Karen and Bruce Thompson next door. They’re like my second parents. I’ve known them my whole life. My role models are people who have overcome challenges, like my dad. Who have seen dark times and climbed out. People who know about struggle.

Sure, sometimes there’s conflict when my dad wants me to do things a certain way but mostly he lets me do things my way. To let me learn. Like when I was little, he would let me use a sharp knife to chop carrots for dinner. He always let me help out with the cooking even though I’m sure it would have been faster to do it himself. So, even though things can get awkward he’s still one of my role models.

One last thing. Are you happy?

Mostly. I’ve had challenges. Things aren’t always easy. But I’m mostly happy. I feel part of things out here. I’ve lived in the same house since I was born; I grew up making maple syrup with Karen and Bruce; their house was my second home. I’ve known Bonnie my whole life too. So I have good friends and family and neighbours all around me. I don’t feel alone.

I hear thunder overhead; the lights on the kitchen stove blink out. The interview is over.

Patrick stands up and looks at the stove. “The clock’s been beeping for the past 20 minutes.”

I hadn’t noticed. We’ve been chatting for over an hour, and for me at least the time has flown. Patrick is very easy to interview.

I leave him with a parting comment. “Your neighbours think you’re fantastic. Do you worry about keeping up that reputation?”

Patrick chuckles. “Nah. I don’t think about stuff like that. I got a lot going on just living my life.”

I can tell Patrick doesn’t think of himself as a role model.

But he is.

The apprenticeship of a renaissance teen

Later I’m sitting at an antique oak table drinking herbal tea in the sunny kitchen of Bruce and Karen Thompson, who have invited me to their home to talk about Patrick.

Karen lays down photos of two attractive school-age children: a younger Patrick and his older sister. Bruce shows me a recent picture of a smiling Patrick astride a white late model ATV. Bruce tells me it’s worth about $7,500 new and that Patrick bought it used for $1,600 and fixed it up.

They’ve read the first draft of my piece about Patrick, and tell me there is a lot more to say about the young man whom Karen calls “one of our kids”.

Q & A

What did I miss during my interview with Patrick? What did he leave out?

B: Quite a bit. Probably just being modest. Like he didn’t mention he aced the course he took to get his hunting licence. Or that he had to pass two interviews to get into CPT. Or that he is a careful investor who says one day he’s going to be a millionaire. He isn’t acquisitive. He doesn’t buy useless stuff. But he is as interested in learning how to make money work for him as he is in learning about anything else. He wants to learn how to do everything himself.

K: He told you he had a lot of help making syrup. But he did almost all of it on his own. Sap to shack, he did it all.

B: You could say he’s been apprenticing his whole life. By age four, he was collecting sap with us and around age six he was hauling loads of sap back to our shack. I remember one time when he was driving a four-wheeler and pulling a trailer with fully loaded sap buckets. I guess he wasn’t big enough to make a corner, didn’t quite make it around and hit a tree with a hanging bucket. He knew to go slow so he only dented the bucket.

I taught him how to use a syrup hydrometer. By age 12, he’d be up at 6 a.m. with me boiling sap on weekends and after school. At 10 p.m. I’d head to bed, but he and a few of his buddies would stay up until 1 a.m. boiling.

Tell me about the shack he built.

K: Well, we had one, so he wanted one too. He built it on Bonnie’s land.

B: When he said he was going to build it, I figured it’d be up in a week or so. I went out one Saturday morning and there it was!

K: He used tin from an old shed of ours for his roof and a ready-made truss. Took the old rusty nails out of the tin one by one after school, then ground down the pieces to fit. He got old heavy duty corrugated metal for the outside walls. The inside walls are old wood pallets. There are even windows and a door. Every piece perfectly shimmed.

Sounds like the perfect boy’s fort.

B: The deluxe model. He’s got a solar panel hanging outside the window rigged up to an inverter and a 12 volt car battery to run his music. Of course he trailered in a generator to run his power tools.

K: I found him trying to build the whole roof before he’d raised the walls. I suggested the walls should come first. He listened.

I’ve watched a roof truss being lifted by crane onto a house. They’re heavy. How did he get the roof up?

B: Brute force I guess. And luck. I did help him with that. But he nailed the flashing around the chimney himself. Would you like to see it?

Of course, I do.

So Bruce and Karen drive me over to Bonnie’s to see Patrick’s shed for myself. Knowing the story behind it, I am amazed at Patrick’s workmanship.

When the interview is over, I’m left with a final thought: Rome might have been built in a day if Patrick Caron had been involved.